Voters in Venezuela are going to the polls to elect a constituent assembly that President Nicolas Maduro wants to rewrite the country’s constitution in order to concentrate power in his hands.
It has not been very peaceful. Protests have erupted across the country as the opposition decries the contest as a “power grab” by Maduro.
A leading opposition candidate for assembly was shot dead in his home and a prominent youth activist along with two other protesters were shot dead in the street.
Lawyer Jose Felix Pineda, 39, was killed from multiple shots fired by assailants who broke into his home overnight, prosecutors said.
Ricardo Campos, who worked as a youth secretary with the opposition Accion Democratica party, was also killed during protests today.
Pineda was the second candidate to be murdered after the July 10 death of another, Jose Luis Rivas, as he was campaigning in the northern city of Maracay.
In the west of Caracas, national guard troops fanning out to put down any disruption to the election used armoured vehicles and fired shots to disperse protesters blocking roads.
Video posted on Twitter showed troops smashing down a metal gate and entering to the sounds of gunfire, and what appeared to be an armored vehicle on fire.
The opposition has called for a boycott and mass demonstrations against the election, which it calls a bid by Maduro to install a dictatorship with the backing of the military.
Maduro kicked off voting by casting his ballot in a west Caracas polling station.
“I’m the first voter in the country. I ask God for his blessings so the people can freely exercise their democratic right to vote,” the president said. He was accompanied by his wife, Cilia Flores, who is a candidate to sit on the new assembly.
Turnout will be key to determining the legitimacy of the election. But that will be difficult to ascertain as most voters will be able to vote twice, as candidates are drawn from social and industry sectors as well as geographically.
Surveys by Datanalisis, a pro-opposition polling firm, show more than 70 percent of Venezuelans opposed the idea of the new assembly – and 80 percent reject Maduro’s leadership.
Most of the Organization of American States has condemned the vote, with several countries saying they wouldn’t recognize the results. So why is Maduro risking civil war?
The political opposition is currently in control of the legislature. This has curtailed Maduro’s ability to survive the economic and humanitarian crisis that threatens the Venezuelan people with mass starvation and economic ruin. Maduro needs the enhanced powers to cement his position and maintain control.
Maduro has the military behind him. He made sure of that by purging officers he couldn’t count on completely. But how long will the senior officers support him if he orders them to shoot protesters down in the street?
That the vote will be in Maduro’s favor is not in doubt. But the Venezuelan people have been aroused by this attempt to kill their democracy and no matter how big the margin of victory Maduro announces, the opposition will keep the pressure on.